Ready for Rio: Derek Drouin’s unusual formula for high-jump success

Canada's Derek Drouin clears the bar in the men’s high jump final at the 2015 World Athletics Championships. (Andy Wong/AP)

Derek Drouin’s long legs are stretched out in front of him, and he’s dressed head to toe in Nike, including a straight-brimmed ball cap. The world champion high jumper just finished a morning workout at the York University track, and now he’s sitting in the stands thinking back to 20 years ago, when his kindergarten teacher, Miss Gihuly—she insists he call her Kelly these days, but he just can’t—introduced his class to the sport. It didn’t really resemble high jump. “Obviously there wasn’t much coaching,” says Drouin, grinning. “We just played around.”

But those early sessions in the gym at St. Joseph Catholic School in his tiny hometown of Corunna, Ont., served as the start of a career that’s seen the 26-year-old Olympic bronze medallist become the most prolific Canadian ever to launch himself over a high-jump bar. And he does it his own way. As Drouin puts it: “Nobody jumps the way I jump.”

For starters, Drouin is one of few among the world’s elite who approaches the bar from the left. That’s because of the setup in his parent’s basement on Brentwood Crescent. After Miss Gihuly introduced him to the sport, Drouin—a self-professed “reckless kid” who’d already broken both arms, twice, before his sixth birthday—set up a high-jump training ground of his own when he was about seven years old. He used a couple of box speakers with books on top to serve as standards, lined them up on either side of the basement couch and balanced a broomstick across them. Then Drouin positioned himself at the end of the hallway that led to the couch, raced down the hall and hurled himself over (or into) that broom, dropping onto the cushions. So there’s a simple explanation for his left-to-right approach: “That’s the way I had to come through the hallway in my basement when I was little,” he says.

It’s only part of what makes the six-foot-five Drouin unique. He’s spoken to renowned biomechanics experts; he’s seen the textbook theories on what they call the ideal high jump. “Conceptually, to me, it does not make sense,” says Drouin, whose personal best of 2.4 metres outdoors has been reached by only 11 jumpers in history. The theory dictates that the longer your jump-off foot is loading up on the ground, the more force it generates, and the higher you’ll soar. Drouin snaps his fingers: That’s how long his takeoff foot is on the ground. “My toe touches the ground and that’s basically it,” he says.

And there’s the business of his right arm. If you’re trying to jump as high as you can, your arms come up to propel you while you launch off your feet. But Drouin’s lead arm is over his head before his jump-off foot touches. “That’s against any formula you’re going to see,” he says.

Drouin, a graduate of Indiana University and the only athlete in history to win five NCAA championships, has a formula that works for him. And last season, ahead of that world championship victory, he and coach Jeff Huntoon spent most of the year refining his approach so he could attempt to reach 2.42 metres, which some of his competition has, and to aim for that world record at 2.45 metres. Drouin is now running faster in his approach and taking off farther away from the bar, about a metre out.

But the guy who’s been launching himself over bars for 20 years isn’t fixated on meeting or besting any number in particular. “It’s never been about heights,” Drouin says. “It’s always about winning.”

The men’s high jump competition begins Aug. 14.